Baseball's drug-testing plan well-intentioned but raises questions

Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth clearly had only the best of intentions in instituting his new mandatory drug-testing plan, but it still raises quite a few questions. The first one is whether he isn't getting pretty close to treading on some fundamental American concepts of individual freedom. Another is whether baseball is really an important enough segment of society to be singled out in this manner?

Or, as California Angels catcher Bob Boone put it: ``I hope they start with airline pilots first, doctors second, and then worry about the entertainers.''

Actually, of course, Boone's list should be expanded quite a bit. We can add bus drivers, taxi drivers, and nurses for openers. And how about teachers, policemen, firemen, judges, legislators -- in fact anyone who works in the real world and whose actions can affect other people?

Meanwhile professional athletes, whose only function is to play games and amuse us, are pretty far down the list.

In any event, the endless fuss about drugs and sports is getting to be an old story at this juncture. In the latest chapter, we've learned that ballplayers are involved in yet another drug investigation -- this one in Pittsburgh. Can anyone possibly be surprised by that?

Then we have Ueberroth deploring the problem and suggesting solutions -- -- just as his predecessor Bowie Kuhn and every commissioner in every pro sport has done over and over again for years.

Ueberroth did take a concrete step -- which is the main reason this latest investigation has received so much attention. In reality, though, his plan doesn't have many teeth in it -- and in fact seems more a grandstand play than anything else.

This is because his edict covers all baseball personnel (coaches, managers, front office workers, etc.) except the players. That's sort of like going along with Boone's idea concerning airlines and then testing everybody except the pilots!

One also wonders whether Ueberroth's ``cure'' isn't worse than the disease.

The players think so, using words like ``dehumanizing,'' and asking why a person not suspected of wrongdoing should be required to prove his innocence. They prefer the current system under which all players have physical exams in the spring, and any team that suspects a player of usage can ask him to submit to a test, and, if he refuses, take the case before an impartial panel.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also leery about Ueberroth's plan.

``The question it raises,'' Executive Director Ira Glasser told reporters, ``is whether or not it is permissable to invade the privacy of thousands who are innocent of drug use in order to find a handful of drug users.''

Ueberroth apparently thinks it is. Some of the rest of us, though, are not so sure. And in any case, given his inability to force his decree upon the players, it's pretty obvious that the whole program doesn't really amount to anything more than a big public relations gimmick.

Baseball's perennial dread of a gambling scandal leads to the fear that a player hooked on drugs might be vulnerable -- that he might agree to fix a game in return for drugs, or to pay off debts.

Ueberroth even recalled the 1919 Black Sox scandal, which, while not drug-related, illustrated the danger of players conspiring with gamblers to fix games. And he cited the recent Tulane University basketball scandal, where drugs allegedly were involved, to show that the two problems can go hand-in-hand.

Then too there is the fact that ballplayers tend to become heroes in the eyes of impressionable youngsters.

These are all legitimate points, and Ueberroth's concern is understandable, but that doesn't give him carte blanche to solve the problem any way he wants to -- unless you happen to accept the theory that the end justifies the means.

To be sure, drugs, gambling, and dishonest behavior are all serious problems in baseball -- just as they are in the rest of society. For this reason, some people think the players should go along with Ueberroth's program. But any thinking person has to come back to Boone's point and wonder why the baseball community should be singled out.

Is baseball really that important in the overall scheme of things? Isn't it, when all is said and done, still only a game?

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